Beware scientists laundering their credentials

Recently Vox had a really bad piece up, How a pseudopenis-packing hyena smashes the patriarchy’s assumptions: Lessons from female spotted hyenas for the #MeToo era. The first thing you’ll notice is the crass inverse naturalistic fallacy that seems to be operating here. That is, you think of a state you’d find desirable (in this case, “matriarchy”), and then look at nature to find an illustrative instance to draw some lessons. I don’t always oppose this, but the people sharing the Vox piece are also the sort who’d find it “problematic” if others did the same (e.g., lobsters).

Reading the piece, I thought back to the fact that mammals as a whole tend to be rather polygynous, with males investing far less in their offspring than, for example, birds. This is why genomic imprinting and sexual genetic conflict is a thing for our broad class of tetrapods. I happen to believe humans are rather different in nature because of our evolutionary history from our mammalian cousins. Also, cultural forces are important to us. Our social complexity is hard to understand without acknowledging our plasticity, even though that plasticity is bounded by our dispositions.

But Katie Herzog in The Stranger reports that researchers who study hyena behavior are angry about the Vox piece because it gets the science all wrong.

This is entirely expected. The author is “a Ph.D. student in microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard University.” Someone who has this particular training can’t be expected to be up-to-date on the latest literature in zoology and behavioral ecology, let alone organismic knowledge about a particular species (usually, one might make an exception if she was studying the microbiome of hyenas!).

Science is very specialized. I can’t speak for others, but just because someone is a “biologist” doesn’t mean that they really know much about biology in a broad sense. Most biologists outside of population genetics have somewhat woolly intuitions about population genetics. I know the difference between a dendrite and an axon, but I don’t know much about neuroscience.

When a scientist opines on a field in which they have some distant relationship to, such as a microbiologist offering their thoughts on the relevance of the evolutionary and behavioral insights from hyenas, be very careful, because whether they know it or not they are laundering their authority from one discipline into another where it does not apply.  A few years ago a scientist on Twitter with a background in ecology was explaining to an undergraduate that “epigenetics has rewritten the genetics textbooks.” This was just flat out wrong.

Many ecologists have as much understanding of genetics as a layperson, and many geneticists have as much understanding of ecology as a layperson. Yes, most ecologists have probably taken a genetics class as an undergraduate, but they don’t know the literature, nor do they think much about genetics day to day. Similarly, most geneticists have probably taken an ecology class as an undergraduate, but they don’t know the literature, nor do they think much about ecology day to day. And really, classes aren’t worth much. I’ve taken introductory and advanced ecology courses on the undergraduate level, and graduate level ecology courses. I still don’t know much about ecology.

And these specializations are unfortunately quite narrow. I don’t study translational mechanisms in yeast. Talk to me about population genetic inference, especially in the context of diploid organisms which reproduce sexually.

It’s unfortunate that many science journalists are generalists who have a difficult time navigating specialized disciplines. But at least science journalists are not going to present themselves as experts. They are conscious of their limitations. I wish many people with a scientific background were too.

5 thoughts on “Beware scientists laundering their credentials

  1. Somewhat off topic, but this does remind of a rule I adapted for buying (non-fiction) books: if the author puts “Ph.D.” or “M.D.” by their name, avoid it. They are trying to impress the unwashed masses to push an agenda, make some extra money, or both.

    I guess I could extend it to web articles now.

  2. I read an article a decade or so back, written by a journalist who had some pretty elementary questions about certain earthworms. So he spoke to practicing earthwormology professors around the USA. The various profs begged off, saying that their personal PhD’s and subsequent research were concentrated on, like, specific bio-chemical agents involved in particular metabolic pathways, and so the profs were sorry to have to say that they knew really nothing at all about earthworm reproductive behaviors or whatever was the basic question the journalist had.

    So the journalist eventually found some books written by earthworm professors in the 1940’s; the journalist marveled at the breadth of passionate global knowledge that those earlier professors had possessed concerning earthworm behaviors, anatomic functions, etc.

    So the 1940’s was revealed as the last period in which the earthworm (that foundational charismatic macrofauna of bio-supplied civilization) was known to academia as a whole, living creature.

  3. I think science journalists pretty much have to be generalists — it’s too hard to make a living in that field otherwise.

  4. Actually in many cases, especially in the current scientific and societal environment, I better trust honest generalists than specialised scientists in a lot of cases.
    Why? Because the scientific disciplines, as they are now, are so highly specialised on subtopics that they don’t see the forest for the trees any more. You can ask them details, but not about more general explanations.
    Yet the even more troublesome issue is their subject specific culture, ideology and established memes. There are ideas which were established for ideological reasons decades ago and they still limit their (at least official) view on a lot of things.
    Quotes are nice and the basic scientific method, but what if generations of scientists quote crap and avoid re-thinking what they are actually doing to begin with, which is or at least should be the ultimate scientific virtue?

    To give a concrete example, a lot of archaeologists fought really hard the new knowledge coming from archaeogenetics with arguments so weak, you can only laugh about it. Yet they know their stuff, their relative chronology, their typology, their cultural genealogies and still they were wrong in so many ways. Mainly for two reasons: The past was more “peaceful and inclusive” than the present and “pots not people”.

    Yet even long before the new ancient DNA results, every open minded person looking at the available data from different disciplines produced in the last 200 years knew that “pots and people” was right for most of the time and cultural without demic diffusion being the exception in prehistoric times.
    What was the standard answer for decades: The idea of demic diffusion with the extinction of the indigenous population is a authoritarian or even racist idea only, people preferred peaceful encounters and cultural exchange and even if they conquered, they preferred assimilation almost all the time – even if there are so many historical examples proving otherwise. They even said that those historical accounts were fake or exaggerated!
    And the cultural packages are like modern consumption goods. I even heard arguments in debates going like: You can’t conclude anything from the material culture, those pots and weapons were like “jeans and cola” are now. That might be true for Greek mass products sold to Celts, but not for what local people produced on their own under different cultural frameworks, especially if the change was abrupt.
    Or weapons and fortresses being more of a “social signal” and “status symbol” than actual signs for military conflict, even if deads in combat were found, wounds on the dead and used weapons.
    Just recently a female author argued that the spread of Neolithic male yDNA might have been because the Neolithic males “were more attractive to the Mesolithic females with their new goods and social status”. Thats why they changed the tribe, peacefully and without conflict. And their males did what? Saying friendly goodbye to their wives and dying alone in their cave while wishing the new couples good luck? Without a total ideological distortion, you don’t even come up with such crappy ideas!

    You might say that this is just a problem of archaeology, but similar things can be said about many scientific disciplines. I know for sure that this is true for history, economy and sociology to such a large extend that it is a scandal! So at least all those disciplines which are important to construct and keep up a certain worldview for our societies. No coincidence that in a lot of cases the first critical voices came from outside of the established scientific community.

    For two reasons:
    1st the blindness of the discipline because of ideological distortion and long established false theories.
    2nd the threat of the discipline’s outspoken or unspoken rules, which punish all those which speak out the obvious.

    Only if the pressure from outside of the discipline and the evidence for the alternative explanation becomes insurmountable, the “specialists” have to change their mind to or being free to do so without having to fear reprisals from their colleagues and money sources. The perfect example for such a change are the ancient DNA results or the financial crisis from 2008. At least some of the ideologically driven constructs became unbearable in the course of events.

    Its probably the worst in economy and sociology, but common in a lot of disciplines. The more political or financial importance a discipline has, while its results being not verifiable and falsifiable in an easy or at least incontastable way by the discipline itself, the worse. The more voices from outside the discipline and related disciplines is needed for correction.

Comments are closed.